Hebert hopes to get more out of his Gophers this time against Wisconsin

The last time the two played, coach Mike Hebert said, Minnesota easily could’ve lost.

Kent Erdahl

Immediately after Minnesota’s volleyball team’s three-game sweep of Wisconsin on Oct. 8, Minnesota coach Mike Hebert spoke as a coach on the receiving end of the same fate.

“If we play like this again against Wisconsin at their place, I’ll be very surprised if we win,” Hebert said at the time.

As the Gophers (20-2, 9-1 Big Ten) travel to Northwestern (7-13, 2-8) and Wisconsin (13-5, 7-3) this weekend for the start of the second half of the Big Ten season, the coach stands by his statement.

Minnesota plays the Wildcats at 7 p.m. today in Evanston, Ill., before traveling to Madison, Wis., to play the Badgers at 7 p.m. Saturday.

It’s not that the Gophers are shaky of late – Minnesota has only lost three of its last 21 games en route to a six-match winning streak – but Hebert said he is wary of Wisconsin’s own four-match winning streak and 7-3 conference record.

“Our team seems to rise to the occasion in Madison,” Hebert said. “We always play competitive on the road, so I’m not worried about that.

“What I’m more worried about is how good Wisconsin is playing right now.”

The reason for Wisconsin’s improved play is simple – experience.

The Badgers have only two seniors to their seven freshmen. Wisconsin coach Pete Waite said the team’s improvements are the reason it is competing for a conference title – a goal that will be much closer to reality if the Badgers derail the second-ranked Gophers.

“We’ve got so many young players, and it’s nice to see how much we’ve come along since the beginning of the season,” Waite said. “I like the position we’re in right now – especially since we played at Minnesota.”

Wisconsin’s talent isn’t lost on the Gophers players.

Setter Kelly Bowman said she knows this isn’t the same Badgers team that the Gophers beat before. She said another sloppy win is out of the question.

“They’re a very big team, so whoever brings their game that night is definitely the team that will win,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, it will be us.”

One thing is for sure – the environment will be much different than during these teams’ last meeting.

Besides having major Big Ten implications, the contest at Wisconsin is the Badgers’ annual Halloween match, which offers free admission to everyone wearing a costume.

Hebert said the match is much more even than rankings and records indicate. He said that’s simply because of Wisconsin’s improved play and a very unique home-court advantage.

“To me, it’s kind of a toss-up,” Hebert said. “It’s going to be zany with a loud band. They invite all the loonies in, and they dress a little crazy Ö It can be distracting.”